A Story for October: The Good Pilot

October 2017

The Good Pilot

If they could manage it, the time Mike and Val had together, precious hours snatched between the claims of flying and working on the farm, was spent away from others. Wartime was a period of constant sharing with people you did not know – in bomb shelters, in overcrowded public transport, in the endless queueing for almost everything. To be alone with another, to talk without fear of being overheard, seemed at times to be an impossible, only dimly remembered luxury, almost an act of selfishness.

After completing a spell of intensive duties, he was given two days’ leave. He wanted to go away – to drive off with her in a car lent by one of the other pilots – but it was a busy time on the farm and she felt unable to ask for two full days off. One day at the most, she said, would be all that she could manage.

He said that in wartime you had to take what you could get. The weather was fine and they could take a picnic; he would still get the use of the car and they could go wherever she suggested.

“I know a place,” she said. “There’s a river, and a bank that will be ideal for a picnic. Sometimes people swim there, but most of the time there’s nobody.”

He said, “I have some . . .”

“Tinned peaches?”

He laughed. “Yes.”

Tinned peaches had become a private joke, because she had told him about Annie’s craving for them and he had already supplied a few tins for her. “What’s it with you people and tinned peaches?” he asked. “Tinned peaches are just . . .” He shrugged his shoulders. “Just tinned peaches.”

“I know that. But there’s something about . . .”

“Something about tinned peaches?”

She smiled. She loved him so much; she was sure of it now. Love came to you on the coat-tails of such small things – conversations about tinned peaches, looks exchanged at odd moments, the way that the other person glanced up at the sky, or scratched his head, or said something about the weather. “Yes,” she said. “Maybe it’s because we could never get them. You really want the things you can’t get, don’t you?”

He kissed her. They were standing outside the post office and there were people about, but she did not mind. Some people did not like the way the Americans flirted with the local girls, but most did not feel that way. And if those who did not like it should choose to talk, what difference did it make? People disapproved of the things they had themselves missed; Annie had pointed that out to her once and she realized that it was quite true. “If somebody shakes their head and tut-tuts,” she said, “you can be sure it’s because they wanted to do whatever they’re shaking their head and tut-tutting over.”

“So,” he said. “Tinned peaches. And what else?”

She thought for a moment. “Sandwiches. A picnic isn’t a picnic without sandwiches.”

“What sort?”

She answered without hesitation. “Oh, ham, I’d say. And egg. And maybe cucumber.” She paused. “Yes, cucumber. That’s what Annie gives the vicar when he calls round: cucumber sandwiches. The vicar tucks into a whole plate of them – and eats the lot. Every one of them.”

“I suppose it’s part of his job,” said Mike. “I think that you have to eat things in some jobs. We have a congressman back in Indiana who’s really fat. He said something in the newspaper about how it all came from his job – visiting folks’ houses and having to eat their cookies and cakes or they won’t vote for you. It’s tough.”

Val smiled vaguely; she was thinking of their picnic. “I don’t think we’ve got any ham . . .”

“Leave it to me,” said Mike.

“We’ve got plenty of eggs,” said Val, brightening. “And cress. We grow that.”

“Then that’s our picnic fixed,” said Mike.

He leaned forward and kissed her again. As he did so, she thought: Don’t fly ever again. Stay with me. We’ll run away together. Anywhere. Anywhere. The war can get on with itself – it doesn’t need us. But she knew that was wrong, even as the thought came to her. This was their war and they had to see it through. He flew a plane and she dug potatoes and carrots: two different ways of fighting the same war.

This is an extract from the upcoming stand-alone novel The Good Pilot Peter Woodhouse: A Wartime Romance. US publication publication date TBC.